Voting referendum bill clears House, moves to Senate

Published 6:59 pm Friday, July 19, 2019

A bill that would give Beaufort County voters the ability to change how county commissioners are elected has advanced from the North Carolina House of Representatives to the N.C. Senate.

Under House Bill 481, which was introduced by N.C. Rep. Keith Kidwell in March, Beaufort County voters would be able to petition for a new voting method in county commissioner races. Currently, the county operates under a limited voting system where voters may only select one commissioner candidate on the ballot.

“Virtually everybody I’ve talked to, that is not a seated commissioner, in reference to limited voting, has told me the same thing,” Kidwell said. “They don’t like it, because they are not able to vote for all of the people that will represent them. … In 97 of our counties, this voting system is not used.”

The bill passed in the House along partisan lines on Wednesday, 57-53, with only one Democrat voting in favor and one Republican voting against. Because H.B. 481 is a local bill, it only requires approval in the House and Senate and does not require the Governor’s signature to become law.

If that happens, local voters could get a referendum on the ballot through a petition containing signatures from 15% of all of the county’s voters, or 5,000, whichever is less. These petitions could propose a variety of methods, including at-large elections, representative districts, limited voting or some hybrid system.

“This is one of the things I ran on, is to have a fair voting system in place in Beaufort County,” Kidwell said. “That may be that eventually, limited voting is the system that the people choose. If you read the bill, it does not mandate any method of voting. What it says is you can bring forth a petition with the appropriate number of signatures, verified by the Board of Elections ,and if that does pass, it goes on the ballot and is voted on by the general population. So it has two very high hurdles before it becomes any change to the way we vote.”

Limited voting for commissioner seats has been in place in Beaufort County since 1989. The practice is the result of a successful lawsuit filed by the late Rev. David Moore that alleged at-large elections denied black voters the equal opportunity to vote for candidates of their choice.

At the Beaufort County Board of Elections, Director Kellie Hopkins says her office is equipped to verify signatures for any petition if necessary.

“If there’s a law change, of course, the Board of Elections is going to comply with any law that comes out of the legislature,” Hopkins said. “We don’t make the rules on a lot of this stuff. Once the final law comes out, we’ll be able to address what issues we would have with it.”

As of Friday, H.B. 481 was awaiting a vote in the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate, the last stop before receiving a full vote in the Senate.